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Knotty affair

Shannon Frandsen is a 26-year-old American freelance writer who arrived in Mumbai in May 2009.

india Updated: Apr 13, 2010 19:17 IST
Shannon Frandsen

In my American mind, a wedding is the pinnacle of romance. American weddings celebrate true love, and it just cannot get more romantic than that. Depending on the people and funds involved, weddings in the States range from subdued to raucous, intimate to grand, traditional to adventurous (bungee jumping, for example) and from simple to extravagant. All variations are saturated with joy for the couple’s mutual love and respect, until death or divorce do them apart.

An invitation to my first Indian wedding afforded me the chance to experience a completely different kind of wedding; not a “love marriage,” which all weddings in America purportedly are, but an “arranged marriage”. Of course, this is common practice in India. I wasn’t shocked that the bride and groom had not met fortuitously and fallen madly in love. But the word “arranged” was enough to knock the romanticism out of it for me. What would a wedding between two people who only barely knew each other be like? How could it possibly have the same kind of emotion as the sort of weddings to which I am accustomed? I was skeptical.

One month after the delivery of the invitation, I shuffled in my tangle of a sari to the wedding. Vibrant colours, throngs of people, endless food stands — it was a festivity, no doubt. When we arrived, the couple had completed their seven loops around the fire and were patiently seated, while other rituals took place. I hadn’t got a clue what people were chanting or what the shaking of almonds in silver bowls represented, but a strong sense of tradition was evident. The faces of the bride and groom were serious and pondering, staring straight ahead in their colourful attire, occasionally lending a smile for a camera. The guests stood idly, or wandered around, appearing more interested in the enormous food selection than anything else. It felt more like a party than a wedding. I then took another look around. Clearly, this gathering was not a public, joyous display of love and devotion; everyone was just going through the routine emotions. I went home thinking that arranged marriages paled in comparison to love marriages — the feeling just wasn’t there.Skepticism confirmed.

The next morning, curious about love marriages versus arranged marriages, I googled and I read strong arguments supporting both. But to my surprise, the more I read about arranged marriages, the more I understood them. One article outlined the criteria parents use to help select mates for their children — age, religion, attractiveness, economic status, diet — all preferences and lifestyles that should be common ground between the bride and groom. How was this so different to the way I chose people to date, I thought. They were all ways to judge compatibility. Hadn’t I turned down otherwise suitable men for small reasons? For being a smoker? For being “too old?” It seemed that arranged marriages weren't too different from love marriages. In fact, they seemed like a lot less work! Imagine never having to expend time and energy on fruitless relationships, on agonisingly awful dates, on phoney matches, or on crushing break-ups. This arranged marriage idea didn’t seem so bad. So long as some kind of choice was presented, a lot of trouble could be avoided!

But in spite of my new perspective on arranged marriages, I couldn’t shake off the way I had thought of weddings and marriage, ever since I was a child. To me, weddings will always be symbols of the independent choice of two people in love to be together forever.